A Personal Lesson in Speed

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It has been a couple of years since I organized a summer speed and agility camp, and I had enough interest this year to revive it. I also have my own personal interest in speed after recently competing in an all-comers track meet, which resurrected my love for sprinting and stoked my competitive fire. Over the last 6 years, I have competed in distance events, but growing up, sprinting was always more natural to me. You could say I was predisposed to being fast over short distances. I mean, even my 23andme genetic test said so! ;) Long distance training has always been a struggle for me and my endurance built slowly over the years. I competed in the 100 and 200M sprints with sporadic training over the last several months. Luckily, there was a photographer present to capture all my technical flaws in form. Can speed really be improved? There is definitely a genetic component to it, but it can be improved to a point. Let’s define speed, take a look at my technique flaws (and what encompasses good form), and look at drills that can help improve technique and speed (the kind I am using in my speed and agility camp).

According to the NSCA, in scientific terms, speed equals distance divided by time and is normally measured in meters per seconds. In performance terms, speed is the time taken to cover a given distance. While we can improve speed, that doesn’t mean that everyone can become a sprint champion. We have a genetic ceiling when it comes to the top speed we can attain. However, it is quite likely that only a few people actually reach this ceiling, usually being elite sprinters who actually perform focused speed training on a consistent basis. Those who excel at speed based training and competition possess a higher amount of fast twitch muscle fibers. There are two types of fast twitch muscle fibers, Type IIa and Type IIb. Training at high loads and/or high speeds, can help develop the often under utilized Type IIb fibers. A resistance training program emphasizing speed and power can help enhance these fibers. The length of person’s bones and the point of muscle attachment are also another genetically predetermined factor affecting speed. Running speed is determined by two factors, stride rate and stride length. I have heard it said that stride rate can only be improved modestly while stride length can be improved the most with training. Stride length is often greatest in the first 4 to 6 steps when an athlete is accelerating. I am not talking about lengthening a sprinters stride which could lead to over-striding, but exerting more force into the ground with each step, thus increasing the stride length. An increase in strength and power will help improve this. Increased stride length and force production is believed to be Usain Bolt’s advantage. Research done by the University of Nebraska’s Strength and Conditioning department revealed that athletes who accelerated the fastest, were the most successful. A 10 yard sprint test is best for determining who gets up to speed quickly. Once the acceleration phase is over, top speed mechanics come into play. The athletes posture will be much more upright than in the acceleration phase and the goal is to maintain speed and stride rate. Now that we have identified what encompasses speed, let’s look at form.

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In my recent dabbling into sprinting at the all-comers track meet, I had a chance to review some pictures from the meet and analyze my sprinting form. Whenever I analyze running form, I like to start at the feet and work my way up. This is one of the things I did right, sort of. My feet landed underneath my center of gravity and I avoided over-striding. However, in the acceleration phase, your foot should actually land a little behind your center of gravity as you maintain a forward lean to transmit force horizontally. At faster running speeds, it’s easier to avoid over-striding and heel striking in comparison to long distance running. The ankle should remain dorsiflexed and stiff. The knees should drive up and forward, much more than in distance running. A place I faltered was in maintaining a forward body lean while accelerating off the start line. We didn’t have the advantage of starting from blocks, but I still needed to get into a forward lean at the start. I stayed very upright and instead of transmitting force horizontally for a quicker start and longer strides, I remained more vertical, in top speed mechanics (before ever reaching top speed). My arm swing was also less than ideal. My right arm swung out wide and my left arm swung across my body. It looked like my old habit of checking my GPS watch during distance runs came out in my awkward arm swing. The arm swing should be more front to back (sagittal plane), front hand never crossing the center line and lining up with the chin, while the back hand is even with the rear end. The arm bend angle should be 70 to 90 degrees, opening up naturally in the back of the swing. On a positive note, I kept my hands fairly relaxed and avoided tensing them into a fist. Tension in the hand can lead to tension in the shoulders and other areas of the body, detracting from speed. The last thing was my face. Throughout both races, I tensed up my face which could in turn, tense up the rest of my body, costing me more valuable speed.

Sled Drag

There are many drills and implements to choose from that can help improve speed. One of the most simple and effective things to start with is improving the arm swing mechanics. Start with stationary arm swings, 70 to 90 degree arm bend with the front arm swinging to the center line in front of the chin, and the back hand swinging behind the rear end. The arm angle on the back arm will naturally open up a little bit. Once we start cleaning up the arm movements, we can start working on the lower body mechanics. Wall drills can help an athlete get comfortable with a whole body forward lean from a more static position. It’s important to keep a good posture and not bend from the waist. Tall and Fall Drills are excellent for helping an athlete learn to maintain forward lean when accelerating. This will help reduce the opportunity to over-stride. Push down and back, all the way through the ground on each stride when accelerating. Short and choppy steps will not get you up to top speed quickly, and is the equivalent of a car spinning it’s wheels. Partner lean drills are similar to the wall drill and tall and fall drill. Lean into your partner and drive them backwards until they release you into a sprint. Sled pulls help develop power to accelerate and a load of about 15% of your body weight is optimal. Pushing sleds with high handles is another great tool that can build strength from the position of acceleration. Monster bands can be used for short resisted sprints. Weighted vests are excellent, but it’s important that they don’t shift and fit snugly on the athlete. Incline running can increase power but it’s important to maintain good form when running uphill sprints. Weighted jumps, plyometrics, and olympic lifting can all help increase power and improve speed if done properly. Over-speed training is one of the few ways that stride frequency can be increased but it can be risky. Probably one of the safest ways to initiate over-speed training is decline running. A decline of 1 to 5% is all that is necessary to get a good over-speed effect and increase stride frequency.  Contrast training is very effective in improving speed. Perform regular sprints, then practice a couple reps of a drill or use an implement, such as a sled, and then finish up with a couple reps of regular sprints again. Implements like parachutes and special shoes/shoe attachments (like jump shoes) haven’t really been proven to work, and in the case of the shoes, can be dangerous for the ankle and Achilles tendon. If you are an older athlete that just wants to incorporate some speed training/sprints into your workouts, you may want to make some modifications to avoid a lower leg injury. Build-up sprints may be the answer, building speed slowly at the start of a sprint to avoid a quick acceleration. Speed training can be modified and made accessible to most people.

Even though genetics plays a major role in speed, there is still a lot that we can do to improve it. My strength training has included some plyometrics, sled pulls, and I recently set a PR in the power clean (185lbs, nothing special, but a nice improvement for me!). I know all of these things have helped improve my speed. If my schedule allows, I will compete in at least one of the Oregon Track Club all-comer’s meets in Eugene. I have some time to get some more training in and make some improvements. In the world of athletics, sometimes all that separates an athlete from the next level of competition, is speed, and it is possible to train it. For others, speed training may be a fun supplement to their workouts, helping to build power and fast twitch muscle fibers.

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